The Quad: A Backgrounder
The Quad is a diplomatic partnership between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States: four countries with a shared vision “for a region that is governed by accepted rules and norms.”
While the Quad has jumped to prominence in recent years, it developed in two distinct stages. The origins of Quad 1.0, as it came to be known, lie in the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, when the four countries formed the “Tsunami Core Group” to coordinate the emergency response and humanitarian assistance.
In the subsequent years, there were efforts to institutionalize the Quad, spearheaded by Abe Shinzo during his first term as prime minister of Japan from 2006 to 2007. Abe’s rationale for the Quad was to defend the international rules-based order, implying that China had become a threat to that order.
Beijing, too, perceived it as an initiative aimed at containing its rise, quickly sending formal notes of concern to the four foreign ministries in 2007. China’s criticism of the Quad has sharpened in recent years. Beijing argues it forms part of a U.S.-led effort of “containment and suppression” and worries an “Indo-Pacific North Atlantic Treaty Organization” will emerge.
The circumstances in which Quad 1.0 petered out are contested history. The finger of blame is often pointed at Australia’s desire to manage ties with China, but in fact, enthusiasm for the enterprise waned in all four capitals, especially after Abe lost office. Juggling other bilateral and global issues with China took higher priority. The Quad went into the deep freezer in 2008, where it stayed for nearly a decade.
By 2017, with the rise of China and Beijing’s assertive military behavior in the East and South China Seas, as well as along the border with India, a returned Abe resurrected the idea of the Quad. Abe had begun advocating for a democratic security diamond to preserve the “common good” in the Indo-Pacific as early as 2012.
At the same time, growing bilateral and mini-lateral engagement in the diplomatic and security realms between the four countries gave rise to further institutionalized engagement.
In 2017, Japan invited Australia, India, and the United States to hold a joint working meeting in the margins of the ASEAN Summit. The first Quad meeting at the ministerial level took place two years later, with the four foreign ministers gathering at the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in 2019. The foreign ministers have met annually since then.
The four countries’ views on what the Quad should do, and how it should be presented publicly, did not always align in the early years. In particular, the Trump administration explicitly and often aggressively framed the Quad as a mechanism for collective opposition to China. Other members of the group declined to use such terminology, a position that has held to this day.
A major turning point for the Quad came during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020 and 2021, India and China engaged in border skirmishes in the Galwan Valley, leading to fatalities on both sides. These incidents firmly turned India towards the Quad, paving the way for the first in-person meeting at the leaders’ level in September 2021, hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden, following a virtual meeting six months earlier.
The second in-person leaders’ Summit took place in Tokyo in May of last year. With the Sydney Summit now canceled, the four Quad leaders have the chance to gather during the G7 meeting in Hiroshima. Besides meeting at the leader and ministerial levels, Quad partners today engage regularly through sherpas, senior officials, and experts.
Quad leaders have said that they “strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.” This is described as a “positive vision” for the Indo-Pacific, with the clear implication that the Quad offers an alternative to China’s preferred model of regional order.
In its current form, the Quad remains relatively lightly institutionalized. It is neither a security arrangement nor a trade group. Rather, the group’s intent is to provide “tangible benefits” to the Indo-Pacific, bolster people-to-people ties, and demonstrate that democracies can deliver. The intent is to offset China’s growing regional influence.
Other Quad endeavors focus on shared interests among group members in strengthening economic resilience and reducing dependencies on autocracies.
These ambitious objectives result in an extensive agenda, sometimes criticized now as too large and diverse. There are working groups on global health, climate, infrastructure, critical and emerging technologies, space, and cybersecurity.
So far, the Quad has embarked on two major initiatives. The first is the Quad Vaccine Partnership, which was announced in May 2021 and was to deliver over a billion COVID-19 vaccines to the region by the end of 2022. This was a thinly veiled attempt to match and exceed China’s vaccine diplomacy during the pandemic. By the end of last year, just over a quarter of the promised doses had been provided. Demand for vaccines from Quad partners has now ebbed with the global ramp-up of production.
The second major initiative, announced at the leaders’ Summit in Tokyo, is the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness. It is aimed at strengthening maritime security by providing data on real-time activities from commercial satellites to countries across the region. Analysts have called it “one of [the Quad’s] most promising initiatives to date.”
As the Quad concentrates on delivering public goods for the region, it remains to be seen whether this year's Summit will result in another big-ticket announcement or whether the focus will be on consolidating existing work.